C-HR swings from the chandeliers with its party-animal styling.

Johannesburg - It certainly helps that current Toyota President Akio Toyoda is a car enthusiast, yet there must be more to Toyota’s increasingly daring design direction and out-of-character products such as the new C-HR. My guess is that Toyota is simply sick to death of being called boring and sensible, and is acting out like a rebellious teen. And no, I didn’t say that’s a bad thing.

In keeping with its subversive nature, the radical-looking C-HR doesn’t really fit neatly into any specific segment or category. You could say that in spirit it’s a bit like Nissan’s Juke, only more radical, but in size and price terms it’s actually much closer to the Qashqai, except the C-HR is lower to the ground and ultimately less practical.

With a ground clearance of only 160mm, it’s not a lot further off the ground than your average hatchback, and yet it’s just high enough to give it that SUV stance and a slightly commanding driving position that so many people want these days.

This crossover’s striking exterior design unashamedly places form over function. With short overhangs, bulgy wheel arches, a fin-like C-pillar that blends into a sloping roofline and boomerang-like taillights, it’s clear that this Toyota thinks of itself as a sports-car on stilts.

Yet there is a price to pay for all this aesthetic exuberance in that the C-HR is not as practical as your everyday crossover, particularly when it comes to luggage space and other ‘sensible nonsense’ like that. The positioning of the rear axle at the very back of the vehicle makes for a rather shallow boot, and it doesn’t help that Toyota SA included a full-sized spare wheel. Surely a space saver would have worked just fine in this application? Toyota says the boot will swallow 328 litres of luggage, and that’s even 26 litres less than you get in the smaller Juke.

Yet the C-HR’s generous overall proportions do result in ample rear legroom, with good stretching space behind an average-sized driver, although headroom could be a problem for rear passengers that are taller than normal.

So this Toyota looks fast and it certainly turns heads, but does it have the performance to match? Given the car’s mainstream price positioning (R318 500 to R356 000), Toyota hasn’t gone the GTI route here, but the C-HR’s 1.2-litre, four-cylinder turbopetrol engine is a fair compromise in anyone’s book. It’s the first local Toyota to be fitted with this new motor, which boasts direct fuel injection and the ability to run on the fuel-saving Otto-cycle at low engine loads. It pushes 85kW at 5600rpm and 185Nm from 1500rpm and drives the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or, as per our test car, a continuously variable transmission, with seven pre-defined ratios in manual mode.

It’s a satisfying combination all round. It’s a touch laggy off the mark perhaps, but nowhere near as bad as comparable vehicles we’ve driven, and the driving experience is smooth and painless for the most part. It’s a little droney when pushed hard, in typical CVT fashion, but Toyota has configured the ‘box to give a more natural feel under normal driving circumstances.

The steering hardly feels sporty yet it’s as accurate as you’d want, and the vehicle corners well for a crossover. The ride is quite agreeable too. There is a slight firmness in the suspension but Toyota has thankfully avoided trying to make it too sporty.

The interior didn’t get that memo, you’ll be pleased to hear. Toyota is unashamedly pitching this vehicle at the youth market, or Millennials as they’re called these days, and understands full well that they want style and individuality. Although the C-HR is not quite as radical on the inside as it is on the outside, Toyota has gone for a futuristic vibe here, with a large touchscreen poking out the top of the dashboard and swoopy lines that are angled towards the driver.

What really stood out however was the quality of the materials. Most of the middle and upper dash is soft to the touch and there’s some elegant stitching on the upper panel, while piano black inlays break the monotony of the grey colour scheme. It’s also a very ergonomic design, with the touch-screen and ventilation controls all placed high up and within easy reach.

It’s as if, for a brief moment, Toyota’s designers forgot that they were trying not to be sensible. There are some minor blemishes, like that ‘digital’ clock that 1985 wants back urgently, and there’s a navigation button on the audio system, even though there is no satnav specced for our market.

Toyota offers two spec grades, but if you want the CVT then you have to go for the ‘Plus’ range-topper, which adds niceties such as dual zone climate control, cruise control, leather steering wheel and rain-sensing wipers to the features mix.

Oddly, neither of them is fitted with side or curtain airbags, which is certainly a safety concern, also meaning that our cars are not fully representative of the five-star EuroNCAP safety rating that the Euro-spec CH-R achieved, at least in a side collision.

VERDICT

If you can live with the smallish boot, you’ll probably find that Toyota C-HR is a charming alternative to the crossover herd. On top of that, it still boasts that typical Toyota solidity - this company just can’t help itself when it comes to stuff like that.

Yet ultimately the C-HR is Toyota trying its hardest not to be sensible, and we can’t help but admire it for that.

FACTS: Toyota C-HR Plus auto

Engine:1.2-litre, 4-cylinder turbopetrol
Gearbox:Constantly Variable Transmission
Power:85kW @ 5600rpm
Torque:185Nm @ 1500-4000rpm
0-100km/h (Claimed):11.1 seconds
Top speed (Claimed):185km/h
Price:R356 000
Warranty:3-year/100 000km
Service plan:5-year/90 000km

IOL Motoring